IN 2014, Luiz Felipe Scolari’s reputation was, to some extent, in tatters. Brazil’s humiliation in its own backyard looked to have brought the curtain down on a distinguished career, at the same time signaling the decline of Brazil as the benchmark for international football.
Scolari is about to appear on the world stage again, albeit in the bastard child of FIFA, the Club World Cup. Scolari’s team, Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao, has just won the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League and the Chinese Super League.
There is a certain irony about Scolari turning up in China. In 2002, before he led Brazil to World Cup triumph in the Japan/South Korea hosted tournament, he handed each of his players photocopied chapters of Sun Zu’s corporate bible (!) The Art of War, a seventh century guide to going into battle. One hopes he is still not using this cliché to inform his team’s strategy.
Scolari has referenced Sun Zu in the past
There is a certain durability about Scolari, though, and with Chinese renminbi attracting overseas players to the Chinese game, the ubiquitous Brazilians are to be found plying their trade in the Super League. In fact, Scolari has six of his compatriots in the playing squad at Guangzhou, including English Premier League flops Paulinho and Robinho, and half of his backroom staff are also Brazilian.
Scolari’s team lost just once in the Chinese Super League and attracted an average gate of 46,000 to their home games. The Super League saw gates rise by some 16% in 2015, averaging over 22,000. While this is an impressive figure, it should also be remembered that the population of the Guangzhou metropolitan area is 24 million.
China, perhaps inevitably given global economic trends, is becoming a magnet for big football names. There was audacious talk of attracting Wayne Rooney, something that would doubtless earn the Manchester United star a king’s ransom – but whenever Rooney is unhappy, stories filter out about someone showing an interest in the Liverpudlian.
Money seems to be no object at the moment. Chinese clubs are limited to five overseas players, but coaches are also being imported. Just look at the other names that have been lured east: Fabio Cannavaro, Sven-Goran Erikson, Dan Petrescu, Dragan Stojkovic and Francis Gillot.
One reason that Chinese football has a new-found confidence is the new TV deal for the league that was announced at the end of October. China Sports Media Ltd has bought the rights for the next five years for RMB 8bn – that’s the equivalent of USD 1.26bn. That’s enormous when you consider that the rights cost just RMB 60m for the 2015 season.
What’s more, Chinese President Xi Jinping is an avid football fan and wants to see China back in the World Cup and also to improve the image of the domestic game.
Unfortunately, the AFC Champions League final did not do much for the reputation of Guangzhou, who seem to have upset their sponsors, Nissan. The team took the field wearing the name of Evergrande Real Estate Group’s insurance arm instead of Nissan Venucia. Dongfeng Nissan paid more than USD 16m for the season-long rights to the club’s kit. Nissan said it was “extremely shocked” and added: “The club took the liberty of unilaterally changing and replacing the chest advertisement without our company’s consent.”
This controversy took some of the gloss off the club’s AFC Champions League triumph, which was secured 1-0 on aggregate against the United Arab Emirates’ Al-Ahli. The two teams had drawn the first leg 0-0 in Dubai.
On the way to the final, Guangzhou beat an assortment of South Korean and Japanese teams, including Gamba Osaka and FC Seoul, as well as Western Sydney Wanderers.
The Southern China Tigers (the sort of nickname the Cardiff City owner would kill for), qualified for the Champions League after winning the 2014 Chinese Super League for the fourth consecutive year, with Italian Marcello Lippi in charge. Lippi “retired” in November 2014 and was replaced by Fabio Cannavaro, but in June 2015, the club suddenly announced that the Italy World Cup winning skipper was no longer coach and that Scolari was now in charge. It seems that, already, China has picked up the habits of the west!
The coach acted as water carrier for thirsty players
However, some news reports suggest that Guangzhou’s players may have been unhappy under their old boss. Full-back Zhang Linping, in Eric Cantona “sardines” style, told Reuters: “Scolari is a great coach. When he arrived it was like our team was in the middle of the desert and Scolari brought us all the water we needed.”
He also brought along acolytes like Paulinho, paying Tottenham Hotspur £ 9.9m for his services, and Robinho. But it was less celebrated Brazilians that have been more key for Guangzhou, such as Ricardo Goulert, who netted 27 goals in the 2015 campaign, and Elkeson, who scored 7 goals in 16 Super League games. Elkeson scored the winning goal in the Champions League final to give Guangzhou their second AFC title.
It is an important goal, too, for Guangzhou will now participate in the FIFA Club World Cup, being held in Japan (Osaka and Yokohama) December 10-20. Scolari is intent of making an impact in the competition as he continues to rebuild his reputation. “My next target is the Club World Cup,” he said. “And why not? I have such a great team, great players and a great club, and so of course, we can realise that dream.”
Scolari seems confident, and you sense that the horrors of Belo Horizonte are behind him. But there may be one or two barriers in his way. Guangzhou play Mexico’s America in the quarter-final on December 13. If they win that one, they will face UEFA Champions League holders Barcelona in Yokohama four days later. He may need The Art of War, after all…